Back to civilian life
After five tours of duty, man returns to Hayden
Steamboat Springs — A torn bumper sticker on Alex Epp’s Ford Taurus reads “Support Our Troops.” In the past few years, the bumper sticker has become a familiar sight, but on Sunday afternoon, as Epp drove the car through the streets of Hayden, the sticker took on deeper significance.
Epp recently returned from his fifth tour with the U.S. Army — three in Afghanistan and two in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment. In that worn sticker, you could see the months of worry that his parents went through as their son put himself in danger each day thousands of miles away.
Now 27, Epp decided to join the military not long after Sept. 11, 2001. He thought about joining for months after the attacks and finally walked into the Army recruiter’s office in Craig in February 2002.
He took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery and scored high enough that he was told he could go into whatever specialty he chose.
“They told me to go into satellite operations, because that’s something you can use after you get out of the Army,” Epp said. “But I wanted to be on the ground. I wanted to be a grunt.”
He remembers the day when he was struck by the reality of his decision. He was sitting on his bunk the night before a raid in the western desert of Iraq. His sergeant walked into the room and said, “If you have anything to say to your families, you will want to say it now.”
“Before that, it was just boys being boys, having a good time,” Epp said. “Suddenly, I realized I was really doing this.”
The next day, with Epp among them, 120 Rangers jumped from a plane to secure an airstrip. Six of them broke their legs in the landing.
As an Army Airborne Ranger, Epp’s job was to jump out of an airplane for raids and ambushes.
Jumping out of a plane as an Army Ranger is nothing like skydiving, Epp said. As a skydiver, you jump out of the plane at 15,000 feet and open your parachute at 3,000 feet. As a Ranger, you might jump from 1,000 feet or even 500 feet.
Epp fractured his back on one mission when his parachute didn’t open.
He doesn’t complain.
“Everyone over there fighting knew what they signed up to do,” he said. “They are all willing to make that sacrifice for our country.”
As the months roll by in the war in Iraq, the fighting becomes more intense, Epp said. “In Iraq, they are just starting to learn what works against the Americans.”
The faces of the enemy are very often not Iraqi, he said. They are terrorists from all over the Middle East who have come to Iraq to fight the Americans.
“This war is not just about securing Iraq,” he said. “It’s become a battlefield for the terrorists to fight us. They are coming out of the woodwork. In my opinion, we created a place they can fight that’s away from our home soil. If we withdraw, they won’t go away. They’ll come here to fight the Americans.”
In a way, we opened a can of worms, he said. “But it was a can that needed to be opened.”
On Friday night, Epp stood in front of 30 people — veterans and family members — at the American Legion Hall in Hayden. He presented the Legion with an American flag he had with him in an aircraft while on a mission in Afghanistan.
Four years after Epp walked into the recruiter’s office, his time of service is over.
As of Saturday, Epp is a civilian again. He leaves Wednesday for his new life as a construction worker in Georgia.
“It was worth it,” he said. “But it feels good to be home. It’s simple here. It’s a lot easier to forget about the bigger conflicts in the world when you’re in Hayden. It’s actually nice to not think about it.”
— To reach Autumn Phillips, call 871-4210 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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